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Searching for a Job or Internship: How to Coach Your Student

Photo of students and alumni aspiring to stand out in a crowd, as they share resumes and talk with recruiters and employers participating in the Spring Career and Internship Fair.

While a student’s search for a job or an internship can be a confusing and emotional time for everyone involved, it can also be a defining moment in the parent-child relationship.

It can be frustrating for parents and students alike to experience failure, or to feel pressure to make decisions because of challenging circumstances. At the same time, it’s important for students to feel in control of their own lives — even though they may lack the experience to take the reins on their own.

Nearly every parent has been both an employer and employee at some point in his or her life. As the boss of a bustling office — or manager of your own household — you have wisdom to share. Following a few tips can help you bridge the gap between being a parent and being an advisor as your student enters the professional world.

Reflect on your own experiences carefully. You have years of experience in the working world, but your child has big dreams and energy to spare. Times have changed since you went on the job market — perhaps even during the six months since you last checked in with your son or daughter on this topic. Take time to think about your own feelings before beginning the conversation. Consistency is key.

“For students, a parent’s preconceptions or judgments are powerful messages that influence their career decisions,” says Leslie Kohlberg, director of Letters & Science Career Services at UW–Madison. “Figure out when encouragement only adds pressure to students [who are] already pushing hard, or whether it’s just the kind of push a student needs. Tricky business.”

Reinforce high standards, no matter what the situation. Any work students do during their college years, from washing dishes to working in a law firm to running a business startup, will relate to their post-college work. The ability to hold down a job — any job — during college says a lot to a potential employer. In the long run, even a job paying minimum wage might be the key to a successful career.

“If an employer’s looking at two applications with the same grades, they’ll look for someone who has had a job — particularly someone who’s had the same job for several years,” says Joan Sweeney, work-study coordinator for the UW’s Office of Student Financial Aid. “That indicates that the person is well-rounded and can handle a job. There’s no question that that’s what employers look for.”

Sweeney considers reliability as the most compelling trait that a student can bring to the table: the ability to show up on time or, when needed, to let an employer know that he or she is not coming in to work demonstrates maturity. Students can build these types of skills and relationships in any job, regardless of what they plan to do later in life.

Being a babysitter or a nanny, sometimes derided as jobs only for younger teenagers, can open doors to a desired field. Many who advertise on the Student Job Center site, for example, are university faculty or staff with strong professional reputations. A reference from an anatomy professor — especially one who trusts his or her employee implicitly with caregiving — could go a long way in a medical school application, for example.

“My niece babysat for three families while she studied communicative disorders here,” says Sweeney. “What better experience could she have for working in a birth-to-three setting?”

These days, Sweeney sees more students without any previous job experience, either because they weren’t expected to work or because jobs weren’t available. Still, she says, parents can continue to reinforce values.

“Remind kids of their involvement in chores, sports, theater, or other extracurricular activities — that all requires scheduling, responsibility, and being part of a team,” she says.

Help your student make tough decisions. Figuring out how much a job or internship is really worth can be one of the most difficult considerations. An amazing media assistantship in New York might seem like a can’t-miss opportunity … until you realize that you’d be bankrolling your child’s food, housing, and other expenses in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

“The temptation to ask for free work is real, especially in these horrible budget times,” says Katy Culver, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. “But students should not be viewed as free labor. Yes, an internship offers a student valuable experience to progress in a career, but that alone is rarely sufficient compensation for the time, energy, and professionalism a student is asked to bring to the party.”

Seeking an internship is a great — albeit potentially bittersweet — opportunity for your student to stand up for the value of his or her work.

Have compassion. Lecturing or advising your student can be less helpful than simply listening. Ask probing questions and facilitate discussions, rather than leading them.

“Ask your student to figure out when your advice feels like taking control and when it’s actually useful,” says Kohlberg. “Honest and open communication, reflection, and flexibility in changing circumstances are key.”

Sometimes your student might only need a gentle reminder that he or she has plenty to offer a potential employer.

“Thirty to forty students a year drop in to see me because they’re trying to find a job; often, it’s because they don’t have a lot of confidence,” Sweeney says. “Maybe they haven’t had jobs before, but they have skills, and they have an interest in something that might lead to a job.”

Don’t negotiate job offers or go to career fairs for your child; instead, let him or her make — and learn from — mistakes. But do keep checking in to see what’s worked and what hasn’t.

“Keep the conversation going, but let your student do the hard work,” Kohlberg says. “Be there when [your student is] losing motivation, stamina, or confidence. Be patient.”

—Susannah Brooks